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How to Read Dog Body Language

by Laurie Dent

Training And Behavior

No animal should ever jump up on the dining room furniture unless absolutely certain that he can hold his own in the conversation." -Fran Lebowitz, author

Dogs get us. It's that simple. There's a certain look, posture, smile that happens; some unexplainable bond that creates this lifelong relationship that we speak about with enthusiasm. We think of our dogs as adorable beings, and in the moment we come face to face, we've found a very best friend.

In the most fundamental way, dogs are great communicators. We understand that a beeline for the front door means he's happy to see you. We know that a lethargic walk means he's feeling under the weather. We know a pooch is craving a snack when we catch him staring at the treat jar. Our dogs read us with ease—the average pooch understands up to 165 words, signs, and signals, says Dr. Stanley Coren, best-selling author of books such as What Do Dogs Know? and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. And some breeds—Labradors, Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Golden Retrievers—can comprehend up to 250 words, signals, and sounds.

As you share your life with your dog, experiencing everything from camping trips to catnaps, you can learn to better interpret what your best friend is telling you with a few tips. After all, your dog DOES talk—and understanding what he means only makes your relationship more special.

How Ya Feeling?

In any communicative exchange, there are verbal and visual cues, a situation, and context—which all work together to help you interpret a message. When it comes to reading your dog, most of the message will be in the situation and his body language. For example, when he's happy, his tail is mid-level and relaxed, and his mouth is open. You see his pink tongue dangling over the front teeth. He might feel like running around, or he may roll over to get his belly rubbed. Akin to happiness is confidence. Your dog demonstrates confidence by standing tall with his ears up and tail slowly wagging, his eyes alert and making direct contact. And when your dog sticks up his tail and rear end and lowers his front legs as if he's bowing (like the downward dog yoga pose), he's feeling playful and frisky, and he's definitively saying, "Let's play!"

Paula Felps, a Dallas writer, says her dogs know exactly how to communicate their love for playtime. "Simon loves having his belly rubbed, and when we're sitting on the couch together, he will 'grab' my arm with his paw and try to pull it toward his tummy," says Felps of her Boston Terrier. "When Zoe wants to go for a walk, she will come to where I'm sitting and lean all her weight against my leg until I'm forced to move...at which point she does her 'happy dance.'"

Barking is another direct way your dog talks to you. Dogs that bark during play are expressing pride and happiness, and are saying, "Look at me!" Conversely, a dog barks when a stranger is near. In these situations, he's giving you a warning that says, "I'm protecting you."

Just like humans, there are times when insecurity and fear creep into the situation. Once you understand the times in which your dog feels insecure (meeting new people) or afraid (clashing thunder, running vacuum), you can work to mitigate those circumstances. You can sense that your dog is feeling a bit insecure if he licks his nose when you speak to him. (This cue is tricky because a dog also licks his nose to get it wet and thus capture scent molecules, so rely on the context of the action to help you understand your dog.) If his tail and ears are down, his head lowered, and his back arched, he's afraid. In these situations, he might also show his teeth, he might growl or whine, and his body may tremble. And if your dog hides under the table, bed, or between your legs, he's telling you he's not feeling safe. Petting or praising your dog in this situation encourages fearful behavior. Instead you should try to distract your dog with something more fun and pet or praise him each time he shows more positive behaviors (like coming out from under the table or bed) to help him overcome these fears. The best thing that you can do is to remain calm when your dog is showing signs of fear towards something, as he will look to you for guidance on how to react.      

World Wide Wag

When your dog wags his tail, he's happy, right? Not all the time, say the experts."I tell people that a wagging tail is like a smile, but we don't smile only when we're happy," says Stacy Braslau-Schneck, a certified pet dog trainer and owner of Stacy's Wag'N'Train, in San Jose, Calif. "Both a smile and a wagging tail could indicate nervousness, excitement, a desire to 'appease' conflict." So how can you tell what your dog is saying with his wag? Dr. Coren explains the following wag traits:

  • Broad wags at a moderate pace means your dog is happy and he's showing you he likes you.
  • Small side-by-side wags at a fast pace means your dog is excited.
  • Slow wags with the head lowered means your dog feels insecure or is trying to comprehend a situation.
  • For some breeds, holding the tail high or curved over the back with short, fast wags says, "Give me space." Coren says, "It really does depend upon how the tail is being carried and the speed of the wag."
 
Figuring Out The World

Another way we take cues from our dog to see what he's saying is by looking at his hackles, the hair on the back of his neck. When a dog is on alert, the hair stands up. Keep in mind that raised hackles doesn't necessarily mean your dog is mad or afraid—it can just mean he's being extra attentive to a person or situation.

"I believe that this is the same response as flushing in humans," Braslau-Schneck says. "And some humans flush or blush easily at slight provocations, or for several reasons, including excitement, anger, and embarrassment. I tell people that hackles indicate that the dog is 'aroused', that is, feeling a strong feeling, but we have to look at the rest of the body and the behavior of the dog to figure out what that feeling—or feelings—might be."

A dog's sense of smell is ultra keen, and it's one of the main ways he learns about his environment. When you see him sniffing, he's curious and interested in making sense of an object, whether it's to find it, identify it, or tell if someone (or some pooch) has been in the vicinity.

The Smile

Every dog lover shines with pride when his best friend smiles. You see your dog grin when he spots you from across the room and runs to your lap. You feel it when you're playing a game of catch. You notice it when he's enjoying belly rubs. While dogs are limited in their facial expressions (compared to humans), there's a definitive emotion being communicated when his mouth is open, tongue hanging out, and he's panting! Dogs smile when they're happy and pleased.

"They have a wonderful, relaxed smile that they give when they are happy," Braslau-Schneck says. "I see it frequently while hiking or training with my own dog, Flip. ... There are those times when we'll be walking down a trail ... and he'll look up at me. His body is loose, his ears up but relaxed, his eyes soft, his forehead smooth-and his mouth is open with that grin that seems to say 'I'm having the best time!' That's pretty clear communication."

Take Time to Talk

The best way to read your dog is to spend as much time with him as you can. Watch him and engage him in a variety of situations, from playing games to taking leisurely walks. In turn, speak to him frequently—dogs understand tone of voice and volume, and give him plenty of smiles because he knows that the expression is a positive one. With time together, you'll learn to better speak his language and he'll learn to better speak yours. And before you know it, you'll even be able to tell one bark from the other.

Dog Expressions

"Dog tired"
"Sick as a dog"
"Work like a dog"
"Every dog has his day"
"His bark is worse than his bite"
"In the doghouse"
"Dog days of summer"

About the Author

Laurie Dent lives with Squishy, a rambunctious, one-eyed pug, and an extremely curious schipperke named Java.

How does your pooch talk to you?

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